91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Loving, loathing and obsession? Must be ArtPrize again (with VIDEO)

Doug Coombe

It's opening night for ArtPrize! The Musical.

“Greetings! I am your humble narrator,” booms a baritone straight out of The Lion King. “My friends, I know it’s hard to recall, but once there was a day with no ArtPrize!”

Just for a moment, let’s reflect: how many other things do you know that didn’t exist four years ago, but have now given locals enough to love and hate and just generally send up that they’ve got enough material for a one-hour twenty-minute original musical?

Tonight’s narrator thunders straight into the grander themes, winking broadly to the crowd. “My friends, there was a time before we in Grand Rapids discovered art. Art saved Grand Rapids!”

Now for the uninitiated, maybe it’s enough to just to say that ArtPrize is pretty much the only time when Grand Rapids gets Kathie Lee Gifford’s attention on the Today Show.  “It’s something called Art Prize, brainchild of Amway founder’s grandson, Rick DeVos. They opened up the entire city for artists, and it’s all over the city!”

Fifteen hundred artists participating this year. Tens of thousands of visitors flooding the city. The public votes on their favorite entry, and the winner gets $200,000. Meanwhile, locals are split between whether  it’s a Great Democratic Experiment…or a doomed, kitschy Midwestern craft show.

Later in the musical, the peppy, plinking music grinds to a halt, as an infamous ArtPrize entry takes center stage: “Uh ok, let’s put the giant penny, made out of other pennies, right over here…”

Yes, one entry really was a giant penny made out of smaller pennies. It was actually kind of cool, but the fact that I feel compelled to defend a giant penny starts to tell you about the weirdness of ArtPrize: it will obsess you. And at some point, you will be amazed at how much people can hate ArtPrize.

For ArtPrize! The Musical, the action comes to a head when a bewildered, ArtPrize-weary local takes a villainous turn:  “And my minions will tear your precious ArtPrize to shreds!”

Corey Ruffin is the guy behind the musical (which is itself an ArtPrize entry, make of that what you will). That particular number, he says “is called ‘Oh Rick DeVos, what is the cost?’”

As far as plot, the musical follows a rich guy, creatively named Rick DeVos, who starts a massive art festival, and the poor kid who eventually seeks to destroy Art Prize.

Ultimately, they’re both brought together by none other than last year’s Art Prize winner: a massive mosaic of Jesus.  As Ruffin explains, “he sings a gospel number and makes them realize that it’s not their fault that Art Prize is full of such bad art, it’s really on the people of West Michigan. It’s Grand Rapids’ fault that it’s full of crap.”

So, it’s a little bitter. But the musical functions as a sort of group therapy for locals. After all, it’s their story on stage: quiet Midwestern town upended by a massive event, and suddenly, Kathie Lee Gifford is gushing and much of the art world is sneering.  Hard to blame any city for getting a little obsessed.

So obsessed, in fact, that on a weekday afternoon the Grand Rapids Art Museum, known as the GRAM, is literally packed. You start to wonder, don’t these people have jobs?

“I wonder that every time I come here,” laughs local art professor Bill Fischer of Kendall College. Fischer has come up with what he calls “the winning formula for artrpize.”

Number one most important thing: location, location, location. Be in a high-trafficked area, like the GRAM. “Number two: be big. Little things just don’t win. Number three, you’ve got to make an immediate visual impact. You’ve got to really draw people in.”

Which is why Fischer’s money, and a lot of other people’s money, is on the piece we’re here to see. It’s called City Band, by Chris Laporte, and it is a huge pencil drawing that takes up an entire wall of the museum.

“There’s, I don’t know, 50 men standing here, all stone faced with their instruments,” Fischer says. “They’re life size. The whole piece is probably 20 feet tall by 40 feet. You’ve never seen anything like it, have you?” I haven’t.

I tell Fischer that I don’t want to like this piece as much as I do – it’s too obviously accessible, too big, too easy and crowd-pleasing. But it’s mesmerizing. The faces are haunting: some bored, others tense. They practically breathe. It’s a perfect piece of nostalgia, the clean-cut, solemn men of the greatest generation. Pointing to the band leader in the drawing’s corner, Fischer nods, “yeah, that’s my Dad. One hundred percent. It’s great.”

That’s how ArtPrize gets its hooks in you, one little moment at time. Case in point: just when we’re heading out of the museum, who should Fischer spot but: “Oh, that’s Chris LaPorte, in the orange shirt, at the bottom of the stairs!”

It turns out Laporte is from Grand Rapids, and he actually won ArtPrize a couple years ago. Now he has an interesting theory about the love/hate/obsession behind it all.

He says the whole town suddenly has one event that puts them the map. And when that gets criticized…well, it’s hard not to take it personally.  “So there’s gonna be a backlash. It’s like, if you’re gonna criticize that, it’s like criticizing me.”

And Art Prize can feel intensely personal and home-towny even though it’s enormous.  It’s like for a few weeks, Grand Rapids is in the World Series…just, for art.

On Friday at sunset, thousands of Grand Rapidians gather on the river. Paper lanterns are handed out, and as the last of the light disappears, everyone lights their simultaneously. In a few moments, the entire sky is filled with thousands and thousands of floating lights.

“To see the community come together like this, it’s amazing,” says Rodell Beasley. He’s a local machine operator, and is grabbing a few rogue lanterns that have caught fire and headed towards the crowd. But mostly, he’s feeling pretty good.  “I truly believe that it’s a symbol of Grand Rapids, to see something this diverse. It’s a beautiful thing that Grand Rapids has.”

Plenty of ArtPrize voters agree. Turns out that lantern lighting counts as performance art, and was voted into the top 10 to compete for the final $200,000 prize. Which, of course, is setting off a whole other local debate – is that art? It was beautiful, but should a bunch of people lighting lanterns count as art?

And it’s hard to know. Because those are the dual sides to Art Prize – the sentimental hometown pride…and the cringing, complex feelings that good or bad, this says something about us.

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. 


Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.